An arresting sight on Penn Avenue: A black-clad Amish couple -- he, bearded, wearing a flat-top hat, she in Pilgrim bonnet and pinafore -- striding past Bakery Square in East Liberty, in animated conversation with a flannel-shirted companion, also luxuriantly bearded. Who can they be? Who must they be?
If you know anything about the Western Pennsylvania cheese world, you may have identified Sam and Susie Byler, owners of Riverview Dairy in Clarion County. They make fresh and aged goat cheese sold at Pittsburgh's farm markets and specialty cheese counters. They're talking with Vermont-based, international cheese consultant Peter Dixon.
Mr. Dixon consults with a dozen Pennsylvania creameries, including the acclaimed Keswick Creamery in Newburg. Western Pennsylvania's Hidden Hills and Clover Creek each got their start in classes he teaches for Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.
Mr. Dixon: "You want flavor? This is the only way to get it. These guys on their small farms. Small scale farms do more grazing -- and thus have larger flavor potential."
He had advised Mr. Byler before. This time he is here to shepherd the creamery through a big change of gears. The Bylers are adding something to their repertoire -- a new ruminant.
The day before the three had made their first -- and Western Pennsylvania's first -- sheep cheese. They made five 30-pound wheels, doing it the Amish way -- on a farm without running water or electricity, except for a generator to chill milk.
They are accustomed to those limits. But a larger hurdle had to do with immigration.
Mr. Byler's vision was to have his own sheep to milk so he could make farmstead cheese (cheese made from milk of resident animals). His Amish friend and neighbor, Aaron Schwartz, a pillar of Clarion River Organics, thought he had a herd lined up through Canadian contacts. Talk about profiling: those sheep were stopped at the border, permanently. Mr. Schwartz located other sheep, Eastern Pennsylvania sheep this time, but the ETA for the new recruits was spring, 2013.
Meantime, there was Mr. Byler's date to make cheese with Mr. Dixon. They would need a lot of sheep's milk, and the closest supply was at the other end of the state.
Colleagues to the rescue: Cheesemonger Cavan Patterson of Wild Purveyors in Lawrenceville would make use of his weekly cheese run to Eastern Pennsylvania to pick up 700 pounds of Lancaster County sheep's milk -- about 90 gallons -- and haul it back to his store. From Lawrenceville, Nathan Holmes of Clarion River Organics, a Riverview vendor and friend of the Bylers, would pick up the relay and deliver the milk to Clarion County.
Mr. Byler explained to the city's first gathering of "cheese stakeholders," some 40 cheesemakers, mongers, distributors and chefs, assembled at Bar Marco earlier this month to assess the state of Western Pennsylvania artisan cheese, that this wasn't the only fright in the process.
"I'm used to giving everything I have to every batch of cheese, but sometimes ... it just turns out a disaster. Everything looked so different making sheep cheese. I would have panicked without Peter at my side."
Mr. Dixon is confident that come next August, when the Bylers' maiden wheels have aged the necessary nine months, Pittsburgh will have bragging rights on Clarion County pecorino romano. In fact a sneak taste brought to Cure last month of Riverview's experimental Camembert-style sheep cheese was creamy and delicious.
The aging step is the reason the Bylers and Mr. Dixon were marching around the city. Long-aged hard cheeses are relatively straightforward to manage over the months, but "farmstead cheesemakers usually lack the space to do it," Mr. Dixon says. The soft-rind cheeses are another story. Fragile and moody, they call for skilled daily handling and rigorous temperature/humidity control.
"A central aging facility could serve the region's artisan cheesemakers," Mr. Byler said. "For most, the biggest hurdles, besides getting their cheeses known, are transporting their product to market from remote farms, and getting them properly aged so as to improve flavor and complexity."
Sites explored include: an old thick-walled building near Bakery Square occupied by Penn's Corner Farm Alliance, on whose board Mr. Byler serves; the basement of Wild Purveyors, Lawrenceville vendors of local cheese who plan eventually to do aging, and an Armstrong County limestone storage cave offering near perfect natural temperature and humidity, located between Mr. Byler's farm and the city.
Mr. Dixon suggested this could be done in stages at moderate cost.
But he was emphatic: "Regional cheesemakers need to sell more cheese.
"They need to figure out the distribution system, so that as they make more cheese, they can access artisan markets beyond Western Pennsylvania. Chefs need to use more local cheese, though of course it costs more to make than ordinary cheese."
Some of these pieces may be coming together for Pittsburgh.
Mr. Byler got an early Christmas present -- his herd of 101 sheep have arrived.
The Penns Corner board last week gave a go-ahead to explore a business plan through which they would provide area cheesemakers with marketing and distribution support.
"We are extremely interested in partnering in this effort," said Ken Marshall, the for-profit co-op's president and long-time organic farmer, "because it fits our model so well -- distributing product for producers too small to do it for themselves."
The plan would include installing coolers, probably used florists' coolers, which could operate at minimal energy cost, thanks to the natural insulation of the cork-lined, foot-thick walls of the former slaughterhouse structure. Chefs could then come to inspect cheese before they buy. Cheese could be cut fresh for distribution to restaurants and subscribers to Penn's Corner's CSA, a better option than cryovac packaging, which does not present cheese at its best.
Long-term aging might best take place in the Brady's Bend cave.
The partnership to explore these options will include Slow Food Pittsburgh, which, with Legume Restaurant, launched the Better Cheese for Pittsburgh initiative this past summer with a fundraiser dinner prepared by the city's sous chefs. The money raised paid for Mr. Byler to learn to make sheep cheese and for Bedford County cheesemaker Lori Sollenberger of Hidden Hills Farm to study alpine cheesemaking in France later this year.
Legume has committed to a repeat of the Sous Chefs Cook for a Cause. "We'll invite new chefs this year," says the restaurant's Chef de Cuisine Jamilka Borges, who headed the event last year.
Slow Food board member, David Lagnese, who operates PA Made Cheese in the Farmers' Market Cooperative of East Liberty and who organized the cheesemakers' organizational dinner at Bar Marco, will serve as the Penn's Corner business project's informal advisor.
The Highland Park human resources consultant with a passion for local artisan food is probably best known as the guiding spirit for Pittsburgh's madly popular Big Pour, now in its sixth year.
"I see interest growing in Pittsburgh for local cheese and this is a seed that we want to grow," he says. "I hope we're starting something."
Virginia Phillips: email@example.com.